Four decades after Wave Hill, Aborigines in renewed battle for land rights

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Forty years ago next week, Vincent Lingiari led 400 Aboriginal stockmen and their families in a mass walk-out off Wave Hill, a remote cattle station in the Northern Territory, owned by a British beef baron, Lord Vestey.

The black workers, who were renowned as superlative horsemen and for their skill in handling cattle, wanted equal pay and conditions with white employees. But what began as a straight industrial dispute turned into something much bigger: the birth of the Aboriginal land rights movement.

The protesters, who were Gurindji people, stayed out on strike for eight years, setting up camp 11 miles from Wave Hill, at a waterhole known as Daguragu. They demanded the return of their ancestral lands, and their actions seized the popular imagination, evolving into a national campaign for indigenous land rights.

After the company, Vesteys, finally gave in, the Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam, travelled to Wave Hill, where he poured a handful of red dirt into Mr Lingiari's outstretched palm. The gesture signalled the restitution to the Gurindji people of the title to 1,250 square miles of their traditional lands.

Under the Land Rights Act, passed by Mr Whitlam's successor, Malcolm Fraser, in 1976, nearly half of the Northern Territory has been handed back to its Aboriginal owners. But as crowds of people descended on Wave Hill for anniversary celebrations this weekend, indigenous leaders warned that changes to the legislation could erode their hard-won rights.

The Australian parliament this week passed controversial amendments to the Land Rights Act that will allow traditional owners to lease out their land for 99 years. The government says that its aim is to foster economic independence by encouraging Aboriginal people to buy their own homes and businesses to set up shop in black townships.

However, critics say that the move will dilute the concept of communal ownership, and will be unworkable, as most black Australians cannot afford a mortgage. It could also leave them vulnerable to being persuaded to sell their land to pastoral or mining companies.

Those fears are dismissed by the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, who has declined an invitation to attend the anniversary festivities at Wave Hill.

Mr Lingiari, who was an Aboriginal elder and head stockman at the station, died in 1988. He was immortalised in a song, "From Little Things Big Things Grow", written by Paul Kelly, one of Australia's leading musicians, and Kev Carmody, an Aboriginal songwriter.

He has also had an electoral constituency in the Northern Territory named after him, as well as a research foundation, which is chaired by Patrick Dodson, one of Australia's most influential Aboriginal leaders.

Only a few of the men who joined Mr Lingiari on the walk-out in 1966 are still alive. One of them, Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, recalled the conditions that led to them going on strike. "We were treated like dogs," he told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper this week. "We were lucky to get the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in humpies (corrugated iron shelters) you had to crawl in and out of on your knees. There was no running water, the food was bad - just flour, tea, sugar, and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock."

The establishment of a cattle industry in the Northern Territory saw thousands of Aborigines move on to the big stations, where they found work as stockmen and domestic servants. They could no longer survive on the land, where their waterholes had been fenced off and their vegetation trampled by cattle.

They were used as cheap labour and became the backbone of the industry, working for basic rations and little or no money.

At Wave Hill, which was bought in 1914 by Vesteys, there had been complaints about working conditions for years. In the 1930s a Northern Territory government inquiry said of the British pastoral company: "It was obvious that they had been ... quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights."

Another inquiry, in 1945, found that Vesteys was not even paying its Aboriginal workers the minimum wage of five shillings. White employees, meanwhile, were getting two pounds eight shillings a week, and enjoyed far superior living conditions.

After the stockmen went on strike, Mr Lingiari is recorded as saying: "I want land, same as anybody else. If I get cattle, if I get a horse, I might grow a bit bigger. I might start something else." The minister for the interior, Peter Nixon, retorted that if the Gurindji people wanted land, they should save up and buy it, like other Australians.

The mood changed after the election in 1972 of Mr Whitlam's Labour government. He told Mr Lingiari at Wave Hill: "This act of restitution which we perform today will not stand alone, and we are determined that Aboriginal Australians everywhere will be helped by it."

Now 90, Mr Whitlam was unable to travel to Wave Hill for the anniversary because his health has deteriorated. Instead, he will deliver a speech via video.